|Recent books reviewed|
Genital cutting in cultural discourse
Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan (eds). Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 373 pp. ISBN 13 978-0813540269. $34.95 (paper)
Reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda, Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, San Francisco
Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, the editorial team from the University of Washington that produced the excellent book Female “Circumcision” in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change (Lynne Rienner Publishing, 2000) have done it again. Transcultural Bodies marginally even surpasses their earlier compilation in originality, quality and page-turning interest. The book will come as a profound shock to those in the grip of the common Anglophone assumption that female genital cutting is so horrible and injurious that it cannot possibly be compared with male circumcision, that harmless surgical intervention on baby boys that has nearly as many marvelous health benefits as the philosopher’s stone. On the contrary, the contributors to this book argue forcefully that male and female genital cutting have very similar cultural rationales and physiological outcomes.
The leading article by the two editors, surveying female genital cutting (FGC) as it relates to culture and rights, starts us off with a bang. In a far-ranging article they update us on important events and scholarship during the seven years since their first book and provide overviews each of the essays in this volume. They remark that “the debate between universalism and relativism in the field of human rights has long been premised on a fixed conception of both culture and rights.” In fact, as the authors show, both culture and human rights are continuously evolving and undergoing redefinition. The editors also contest the popular notion that human rights is a Western construct imposed by First World countries on the rest of the world, arguing that human rights has relevance and robustness to all humanity. They further argue that “a human rights culture” has become a central aspect of global culture and that cultural relativism should not be taken too far or allowed to become an excuse for abuse. But neither should human rights be allowed to privilege one culture over another, and the editors question whether FGC is best approached as a human rights issue. Support for this doubt may be found in the fact that the vilification of a practice that can follow its labeling as a human rights violation can impede or halt scholarly inquiry, as Carla Makhlouf Obermeyer shows when identifying the scarcity of medically objective inquiry into its side effects.
Hernlund and Shell-Duncan draw attention to the irony and double standards inherent in the fact that a simple prick to the clitoris is probably illegal under United States law while “much more invasive procedures” on males are entirely legal and socially accepted. They devote a full page to a judicious survey of the critics of American circumcision practices, singling out the much-published pediatrician Dr. Robert Van Howe repeatedly – though regrettably getting his name wrong. Next they examine the greatly expanded interest since their last book in “designer vaginas,” cosmetic operations that women in the developed world women are having performed, usually because they want their genitals to look like those of desired models in pornography and or in the belief that the alteration will enhance the sexual experience. The authors analyze in depth the consequent ironies and double standards. Toward the end of the article, male circumcision is mentioned again, when it is noted that in 1975, after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that there were “no health benefits whatsoever” in routine infant circumcision, there were no moves to outlaw the practice. Instead, “deep-seated religious, aesthetic, and cultural norms” were allowed to influence the decision to take “an educational approach” instead.
Following the editors’ introduction, Janice Boddy contributes a perceptive analysis of the FGC controversy in cultural perspective. “Much popular writing on female circumcision is polemical, preachy, advocacy driven, and endlessly self-referential,” she writes. “It is the appeal to social evolutionary thought in all its arrogant certainty that is the most troubling feature of FGM texts.” By this she refers to the common conviction that eventually those unsophisticated Africans will overcome their dark, ignorant ways and adopt enlightened Western approaches. According to this bromide, “African women are mired in culture; ‘we’ hold the light of truth.” Boddy wonders why there is “no outrage remotely parallel to that which leads some women to insist that circumcised women are entirely alienated from the essence of the female personality? Is it because these excisions are performed on boys, and only girls and women figure as victims in our cultural lexicon?”
Next L. Amede Obiora contributes a vibrant analysis of Ousmane Sembene’s film about FGC, Moolaade. She argues that “Women give in to [FGC] presumably to gain something else for their lives, and there are substantial trade-offs.” Fascinatingly, she later observes that “the commonplace reification of culture as the prime site and source of gender oppression exhausts its usefulness at some point, and the denigration of culture implicit in such representations becomes all the more wrongheaded insofar as it obscures the attributes of culture that can catalyze desirable change.”
The Norwegian anthropologist Aud Talle follows with a study of “the anthropology of a difficult issue” in which she reaches heights of poetic eloquence in describing the plight of Somali émigré women in London. “In the streets of London they are not ‘in the world’ with a perfect body as they were on the savannah in Somalia. Now they wander forward as ‘lacks’—mutilated souls in mutilated bodies. They are signs of a story they have not written themselves; in fact, their bodies have become sites of a worldwide discourse on morality.”
Sara Johnsdotter examines attitudes to FGC held by Somali men and women now living in Sweden. The threat of action by Somali authorities, combined with social disapproval of FGC (as opposed to its endorsement in Somalia) and journalistic sensationalism, lead to virtually all Somalis living in Sweden opposing FGC. Johnsdotter notes that “an implicit and sometimes explicit moral discourse [is] attached to the issue of female circumcision,” rendering reasoned discussion very difficult, since “Almost anything about the horrifying consequences of these practices can be alleged in the public discourse without evidence to support it.” She remarks that a symbolic pricking to satisfy Somali cultural requirements removes no tissue and “is far less invasive than what is done to male infants at Swedish hospitals during male circumcision.” Thus, “In a strictly medical sense there is no reasonable motive to forbid pricking of girls’ genitalia while permitting male circumcision. The reason for allowing … male circumcision at hospitals while forbidding female symbolic sunnah circumcision is purely ideological.”
Juliet Rogers follows with a trenchant critique of Australian legislation against FGC. Women are described as “mutilated” and “represented as objects to be managed.” In the passing of anti-FGC legislation in Victoria, “the authority of law [was represented] as essential to protect Australia from ‘barbarous practices’ and simultaneously constructed ‘others’ as barbaric and as ‘mutilated’ social agents who were not entitled to the rights of citizenship.” Like the other authors in this volume, Rogers points to feminism’s focus on the clitoris as problematic, and suggests that it is “the representation of the clitoris as a singularly universally understood and experienced entity that is precisely the problem.” An ironic aspect of the double standard in Australia is that while the Commonwealth health insurance scheme, Medicare, provides a rebate for circumcision of boys, it is specifically prohibited from covering any cutting procedures on the female genitals, no matter how old the owner. It has been pointed out that this restriction may breach the Sex Discrimination Act, which provides that each gender must receive equal treatment in the provision of Commonwealth benefits and services.
Charles Piot checks in with a brief yet perceptive analysis of the Kasinga case, in which the United States granted political asylum to a Togolese woman on account of her alleged fear of FGC. Corinne A. Kratz next provides an in-depth review of both Kasinga and the other precedent-setting US asylum case based on fear of FGC, Abankwah. She demonstrates that both cases involved substantial fraud by immigrants whose main aim was to secure permanent residency in the USA! Kasinga was actually from a Togolese group that does not circumcise females, while the very name of “Abankwah”, as well as nearly everything else she said about herself, turned out to be fabricated. Nevertheless, in accordance with legal principles, her award of asylum still stands as good law and a precedent in the USA. Kratz wonders whether “political lobbying and media outrage short-circuit judicious reasoning?” Kratz’s analysis gives substance to the editors’ discussion of the sexist bias inherent in the fact that fear of circumcision is a ground for seeking asylum only by women; the assumption seems to be that males are expected to take what’s coming to them without complaint.
Michelle C. Johnson contributes an interesting case study of the interactions of culture, religion and FGC among the Mandinga people of Guinea-Bissau and Mandinga immigrants living in Portugal. She shows that Mandinga women affirm what they see as “the fusion of ethnicity and Islam by inscribing it onto their bodies.” Mansura Dopico provides us with a study of the sexual experiences of the infibulated women of rural Eritrea and in Australia, demonstrating the great variety and unpredictability of their sexual responsiveness. Johnson argues that, contrary to common belief, “there is some evidence that removal of the clitoris cannot inhibit either arousal or orgasm.” And that “the relationship between FGC and lack of sexual satisfaction had been grossly exaggerated.”
R. Elise B. Johansen writes about Somalis and infibulation in Norway. Her chapter relates to broader topics than FGC (such as the Somali construction of female virginity and the contrast between the Western tendency to fake orgasm and the Somali tendency to hide female sexual pleasure), and it is all the more fascinating for the breadth of her approach. She makes intriguing counterpositions of Western and Somali views on sexual matters and comments that “The practice of genital cutting itself suggests that inborn genital differences are not considered sufficient to constitute proper men and women.”
Next comes the irrepressible iconoclast Fuambai Ahmadu, who told the story of her own circumcision during a visit from the US to her childhood home in Sierra Leone in the editors’ earlier collection. Her unusual status as an African-born, Western-educated academic on the topic of FGC who voluntarily returned to her homeland to be circumcised gives her a uniquely authoritative perspective on the huge cultural prejudices that constitute beams in the eye of the West. She suggests that “the potential psychosocial damage of negative FGM campaigns on teenage girls and women could be far worse than any impact of the physical act of cutting the clitoris.” She refuses to accept her definition by enlightened others as “mutilated,” forthrightly affirming that “I have not experienced any change, either elimination or reduction, in sexual response following my own initiation.”
The best essay in the collection is left for last. Henrietta L. Moore contributes a magisterial and far-reaching meditation on culture, difference and power, gender and agency, drawing together all the other authors in an integration that transcends the FGC issue and embraces topics of concern to all humanity—culture, justice, gender, and understanding difference. “The West, it turns out, has culture just like everyone else,” she reports. “The very idea of a rooted, native culture was the product of a traveling, comparative Western gaze.” It is so obvious and yet so rarely mentioned that Africans in circumcising cultures “may have both positive and negative feelings toward female genital operations” – just like Americans with respect to male circumcision. Moore writes that “a curious resonance is established between Western discourses of liberated female sexuality and the relationship of the clitoris to sexual pleasure and agency and more ‘local’ male discourses about the importance of removing the clitoris in order to bring sexuality under the woman’s control as a means to ensure successful, socially reproductive sex.” She observes that the political asylum cases discussed in earlier chapters “relied to a significant extent on reifying and ossifying culture … What characterizes the globalized world is everyone thinks they know about culture and about the difference that cultural difference makes.” In fact, however, new “forms of hybridization, cosmopolitan consciousness, and emerging secularism … are everywhere accompanied by new forms of cultural fundamentalism, nationalism, and religious intolerance.”
Regrettably, well over a score of typographical, grammatical and reference errors not present in Shell-Duncan’s and Hernlund’s earlier volume mar this production. I also spotted one substantive error that should have been caught and corrected by fact the checkers, concerning the organization of the (now renamed) Immigration and Naturalization Service. Such imperfections do not undermine the validity of the authors’ conclusions, though they do indicate a degree of laxness, or perhaps haste, that should have been avoided.
Transcultural Bodies makes an important contribution to critical thinking about genital cutting, human rights, anthropology, feminism and culture, offering a broad-ranging plurality of perspectives and topics that is all too rare these days, yet remaining focused on the unifying topic of female genital cutting. It is so well-done that it transcends its seemingly narrow subject matter and (as Moore suggests) offers a broad and stimulating perspective on our increasingly globalised world.
One American woman's experience of genital mutilation
Patricia Robinett. The Rape of Innocence: One Woman’s Story of Female Genital Mutilation in the U.S.A. Eugene, Oregon: Aesculapius Press, 2006. 112 pages. $20.00. Available from Amazon or direct from the publisher
Reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda, Attorneys for the Rights of the Child
Patricia Robinett has written a truly remarkable account of her personal story. The author was a victim of genital surgeries performed on her when she was a girl. She describes the events fairly objectively though not without passion, and of course strong anger particularly at her mother who arranged the procedure.
Patricia proves herself that rarest of writers who can write a memoir as her first book and maintain a focus and an objectivity that is genuinely admirable. She writes movingly, stunningly, about events arising from her own incredible experiences while leading the reader through her emotional roller coaster ride rather than, as is more common and much easier, essentially strapping the reader into the car and leaving them to handle the rough ride themselves. More impressively, Patricia simultaneously manages to achieve a paradoxical distance and perspective that places her life events in a larger societal context relating to the paradox that is genital cutting in the US.
Some of us know that the nineteenth century craze for medicalized male circumcision was accompanied by a passion for the corresponding female procedure. Medical justifications were virtually identical, the general idea being that moral hygiene and personal hygiene mirrored each other and that both could be advanced by reducing the incentive, ie., the pleasure produced by youthful masturbation. Female circumcision appears never to have numerically matched the cutting of boys. The practice gradually died out in the 1950’s. Articles advocating female circumcision were published in medical journals and popular magazines (including Cosmopolitan) even into the 1970’s in the US. As the author states on the back cover of her book, Blue Cross Blue Shield paid for clitoridectomies until 1977. Ever since medicalized circumcision first developed one and a half centuries ago, we have lived in a profoundly wounded culture, which in turn has found an almost limitless number of ways to harm individual boys and girls.
Patricia’s story is a horribly sad one. It is bad enough that her labia were cut in a misguided attempt to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) but as she relates, she was forced to undergo a second genital cutting. Chillingly, “it appears it was not necessarily [performed] for medical purposes.” According to the author, she and her mother never bonded and a sort of power struggle was partly to blame for her repeat surgeries.
Sadly, though of course completey understandably, the author is a bit fixated on seemingly trivial childhood events such as her kindergarten sweetheart (whose name she won’t tell us), her strict principal who may have been the one who recommended the clitoridectomy to her mother, etc. I dare say any of us who endured what the author did might have learned to survive through similar psychological defense mechanisms.
In her twenties, Patricia took an important step in her path of self-discovery and recovery when she started volunteering as a counselor at an institution called White Bird. She describes White Bird as “a surreal environment where all the Ph.D.s wore plaid, flannel shirts and were paid minimum wage, including the CEO.” In one pivotal session, a previously suicidal client of Patricia’s turned over to her all the razor blades the client had previously used to cut herself. In the author’s words, “The unspoken message was clear. ‘I don’t need to cut myself any longer.’” As she gained maturity and perspective from her work and from her path of healing, “My world view became less judgmental. I saw that there are no good guys, there are no bad guys—there is only fear and love.”
The author does make one basic mistake when she incorrectly states that a reduction in UTIs from two in a hundred boys to one in a hundred boys would be a 100% reduction in UTIs whereas of course it is actually a 50% reduction. Nevertheless her point remains valid: relative percentage reductions can be high even when the actual overall reduction is small.
Luckily, the author was able to find some poor redemptive value in relating her story to others and moving on, transforming the pain and working to protect others from it. This short book is an essential one for anyone interested in genital mutilations, or indeed for anyone who cares about humanity, love, and survival.
Fair disclosure: Although I do not believe this affected my opinion of her book, Patricia is a friend of mine.